Donald Trump has never had a problem attracting attention.
And now, as his years-in-the-making-but-all-talk-until-now run for president is underway and dominating recent media coverage of the GOP primary, he’s giving news outlets fits. Or so some of them would have you believe.
Trump’s cash and name recognition bring built-in attention, and media outlets with ads to sell are happy to oblige him with coverage. Trump and the media appear to have a wink-and-nod type of arrangement that has worked itself into a summer reality show that runs on multiple networks.
The Trump show not only helped cable news networks, in particular, weather the annual summer news lull, but they saw ratings increase across the board in July compared to the same time last year, according to The Wrap. Bolstered by Trump’s persistent presence, MSNBC saw a jump of 17 percent in daytime and 12 percent in primetime. CNN got a 6 percent lift in daytime and 9 percent in prime time. Fox News’ total viewers were down slightly, but up 5 percent in the coveted 25-to-54 demographic.
But like Trump’s “The Apprentice” and so many others shows in the reality genre, most media and political experts believe it is bound to fizzle out once the formula is exhausted.
In the meantime, Trump presents a conundrum for those covering and following presidential campaign coverage. By all the rules of the game, Trump is a legitimate candidate for president. But several of his outlandish statements have led many to proclaim him a sideshow — including The Huffington Post, which announced recently that it was moving its coverage of Trump’s campaign to the entertainment section rather than its politics vertical.
Trump’s jump in the polls, putting him at or near the top of a crowded GOP primary field, only stokes the fire. Trump leads the crowd with 18 percent of Republican or Republican-leaning voters in the most recent CNN/ORC International GOP primary poll, with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 15 percent and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker at 10 percent. In another recent poll by Public Policy Polling, Trump held the GOP lead at 19 percent, compared to Walker’s 17 percent and Bush’s 12 percent.
“This allows the press to claim that covering Trump to the exclusion of other candidates is legitimate,” said Diana Owen, an associate professor of political science at Georgetown University who specializes in media and politics and who said she agrees with The Huffington Post’s stance. “Since he is treating the presidential election process like a reality TV show, he should be covered like he is a contestant, not a candidate. However, I think there is a balance that can be struck. We need journalists to use their skills to parse out Donald Trump the candidate from Donald Trump the sideshow.
“The political media should cover Trump as one in a field of candidates whose issue stances and policy positions deserve to be articulated, and not allow Trump's antics to set the agenda for the campaign.”
This is where Trump’s savvy and news outlets’ thirst for ratings and page views collide, to create what is a winning combination for both.
“Trump's candidacy exploits a media industry that no longer works in the public interest, but which seeks to use elections as an occasion to maximum audience shares and profits,” Owen said. “Covering the antics of a ‘reality TV’ candidate like Trump involves less time, effort and resources than going on the campaign trail with serious candidates, researching their positions and providing substantive information to the voting public. Trump makes an outlandish statement, and the press covers the story by reporting on the reaction on social media, including statements by celebrities. This is lazy journalism, but it is the state of the media today.”
The reaction and fallout following Trump’s controversial statements have been a gold mine for news outlets, and it was never more evident than when NBC cut ties with Trump after his reference to Mexican immigrants being drug runners, criminals and rapists. The New York Times, USA Today, CNN, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal, TMZ, and countless others giddily rolled out the exact same headline, turning Trump’s “Apprentice” catchphrase around on him, “NBC to Donald Trump: You’re Fired!”
Still, the polls demonstrate that Trump has tapped into something significant – some say bigotry – in parts of the Republican Party, and that makes him newsworthy. A Google Trends search for the past 30 days shows that public interest in Trump – compared to Bush, Walker, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – is around 15-to-1.
“He makes comments that politicians normally do not make,” said John G. Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University who specializes in public opinion, mass media, and elections and campaigns. “He is capturing the anger of many Americans. I think he senses the anger out there and is giving voice to it.”
The transition from the early primary season — when pundits aim to make hay out of campaign logos, the timing of candidacy announcements and the offhand comment here and there — to a real presidential campaign will be the true test of Trump’s legitimacy.
“He warrants coverage now,” Geer said. “He needs to find a way to take his candidacy to a new level. That will be hard.
“If he becomes a serious candidate, the coverage will become much more intensive. That coverage will show a lot of warts.”
For now, where Trump goes, an audience follows. But an audience is different from an electorate, and while Trump’s hefty following is a win-win for him and the media in the short term (but perhaps not for the Republican Party), a new reality will likely set in.
“Trump and other less than serious candidates can have their time in the spotlight at this point … as our presidential election process is extremely protracted,” Owen said. “Historically, candidates like Trump who are in it for the publicity tend to be sorted out by ‘game time’ when people are ready to think seriously about the campaign and cast a vote for the leader of the land. The voters have a way of sorting out the legitimate candidates after the ‘reality TV’ candidates have had their fun.”